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Halloween turns deadly in Itaewon

Death toll from crowd crush has risen to 154

Police officers on Sunday guard the alley near the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon where the deadly crowd crush took place the night before.
Police officers on Sunday guard the alley near the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon where the deadly crowd crush took place the night before.
Halloween festivities in Seoul's Itaewon neighborhood became a deadly disaster late Saturday, as crowds surged into a narrow, sloping alley, killing and injuring hundreds.

At least 154 people have died -- of whom 26 were foreign nationals -- and 132 were injured as of Sunday evening, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and Seoul fire and disaster headquarters.
 
Included in the foreign nationals who died were people from 14 countries including Iran, Uzbekistan, China, Russia and Norway.

Police estimate some 100,000 people gathered Saturday in Itaewon, a district in central Seoul known for its nightlife, in what was the first Halloween since pandemic restrictions were ended. Last year, private gatherings had to be kept to less than 10 people and bars and restaurants had to close by 10 p.m.

At around 10:40 p.m. the crowd surged into the narrow alley, leaving people stuck there for about an hour and a half. As hundreds found themselves trapped in the tight space of the alley, many of those who could not get out died of suffocation.

Rescue efforts continued into the night. Footage that has emerged shows first-responders performing CPR on people unconscious on the street while music blares from bars and nightclubs.

Just a few blocks from Itaewon at around 3 a.m., people still dressed in costumes who were able to flee the horror were trying to hail taxis out of the area.

“I had no idea what was going on until the police came,” said a woman in her mid-20s. “I was totally on the other side of the street. I learned about what happened as the police told us to leave.”

Survivors who sustained injuries were sent to different hospitals across the city after emergency rooms of the nearest hospitals reached capacity. Medics warned those who were not immediately hurt to seek medical attention in case of symptoms such as a stomachache.

The bodies of some of the deceased had to be placed in gyms that were turned into emergency morgues while forensic officers worked to identify them.

The scale of the accident and the number of people at the scene meant it took several hours for the fire department and the police to complete the rescue. As the number of people needing emergency resuscitation outnumbered paramedics, volunteers joined the frantic efforts to save the victims.

Early in the morning, the Hannam-dong Community Center, which was receiving missing persons from the large-scale crush in Itaewon, was bombarded with phone calls from people who said they were the mother, father, or acquaintance of a missing person.

An expat of 18 years from the Ivory Coast said her son had still not come home.

“I lost contact with my 22-year-old son Aby Masela last night," she said. "He is not on the list of deaths. He is missing, but his identity has not been confirmed.”

There were 4,024 missing people reported as of 5 p.m. on Sunday, according to the center.

South Korea entered a weeklong national mourning period for the victims of Saturday night’s human stampede.

“Following the president’s directive, the government has decided to observe a national mourning period until midnight of Nov. 5, during which the nation will mourn the perished,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told a media briefing. During the period, all government offices and overseas missions will lower their flags to half-mast and cancel or postpone nonessential public events.

Yongsan-gu, the district where the accident occurred, was declared a special disaster area, and subsidies will be paid to bereaved families and those who were injured.

As the number of deaths escalated overnight, President Yoon Suk-yeol and the presidential office responded by convening several emergency meetings and giving messages to the public. Yoon made an unscheduled address on Sunday morning, ordering all related ministries and agencies to make “every effort to promptly provide aid to the victims.”

He called the crowd crush the night before a “tragedy, and a disaster that should not have happened.”

The ruling and opposition parties declared a truce in their bitter wrangling over multiple issues, and voiced their will to work together to deal with the unprecedented accident and take measures against the bereaved families.

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com) and Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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